42 is not the answer (on Hannah Arendt)

42 is not the answer

Work in progress – this was written on 10th November 2015 as a memo to catch-up with some ideas around my research. The Virtual Reading Group on Hannah Arendt led by Professor Roger Berkowitz at Bard College (NY) defined the context of this writing.

   As we are getting to the end of reading The Human Condition, timing is right for me to resume my thoughts. What you will find hereafter is a memo introducing the questions I’m interested researching on Hannah Arendt and the statement of my hypothesis, with a few words about myself.

   I was born in 1958, son of a Bulgarian political refugee and a Greek mother, the same year Arendt published The Human Condition; and as far as my childhood memories go, I remember a deep interest, or even passion I had following the events of the Space Age, which culminated at the end of the next decade with Apollo missions and Lunar landings. I remember also perplexing questions I shared with boys of my age about the Cold War, and a somehow morbid fascination for the atomic bomb. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey movie I saw at the turn of the seventies, made a lasting impression to me, and possibly was the starting point for me turning to metaphysical questions, in quite a natural way, feeling through this work of art that Kubrick produced, the seeds of ταυμαζειν or philosophical interrogation, which I started to follow more explicitly as a student when I entered at the University of Brussels six years later. But life is unpredictable, and as it happened, I dropped quickly from studies in philosophy, switched to psychology, got a master degree with some specialization in neurosciences, and started a career after a few years as a researcher in psychopharmacology, from which, again, I switched after a while for more stable jobs on what was, and remains, an expanding field: information technology. This is the domain I am still working on, more specifically in the financial industry and banking for the last 16 years, and where I suppose I will stay until I get retired. Then, philosophy came back to the fore of my mind, somehow with life-turning events and a desire to think more deeply, more seriously to the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything”, which is not “42” (as per Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), but “more philosophy”.

   The first time I read Hannah Arendt was during my final years at the University, with the translation to French of the third part of The Origins: The Totalitarian System -- then many years passed, and I started reading The Human Condition when I had decided to do “more philosophy”. The famous Prologue to that book fitted almost perfectly with my mindset, I had found the set of questions I wanted to think about: what happened to the world? What does the world of technology mean to our condition? What is it telling about the way we organize our societies and politics, leading perhaps to the manifestation of the “banality of evil”? Somehow, I tried to put myself in the same footsteps as Arendt, and think to the enigma of the “absence of thought”, the “banality of evil”, the roots of the totalitarian system, all connected together in a puzzling way. I got the feeling Arendt could not achieve addressing those questions. I had, and have still the impression that she met a limit, an “aporia”, to use the philosophical vocabulary, into her radical effort to think on the “origins of Origins”, or that in a sense she failed to produce the convincing philosophical evidence of “what turned wrong” with the human condition, going instead to the end of her life to promote the tradition of the “Vita Contemplativa” as an answer to the question of limits. Of course we do not know what she could have achieved, had she lived a few years more; Judging, the third part of the The Life of the Mind would have probably lead to new avenues of thought linking the esthetic and teleological judgments back with the concept of radical evil – we will never know, we can only speculate, and this is maybe one of the reasons why so many people get into arendtian studies. Maybe it is also one of my reasons: try to understand better what she had in mind.

   To be more specific, the theme I am addressing in my starting research is “the question of technology” in Arendt’s thought and work. I embarked this year onto a doctoral journey with the support of my thesis promoter, Professor Antonino Mazzù at the University of Brussels. To understand the context, Professor Mazzù leads the research group on phenomenology and hermeneutics, at the department of Philosophy. Arendt is one of the thinkers being studied within this research group, alongside prominent figures of the phenomenological current: Husserl of course, the most important one, Fink, Heidegger, Binswanger, Merleau-Ponty, and other French philosophers like Michel Henry, Henry Maldiney or Marc Richir, who just passed away recently – he had teach at the University of Brussels and inspired many people, among them Mazzù. There is a strong tradition of phenomenology in Belgium, starting with the Husserl archives being deposited at the University of Leuven, and with people like Alphonse de Waelhens who was the first translator in French of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit. Where does Arendt fit in this context? Obviously: almost everywhere in her work, and probably the most profoundly in The Human Condition, where she is developing her “existential analytics” of the “Dasein”, as we might say, with the concept of the “Vita Activa”. And as we are now nearly achieving to study this book through the lessons of the Virtual Reading Group, I can more precisely frame my working hypothesis: that Arendt understood technology into the framework that Heidegger, with Die Frage nach der Teknik had defined, as the “power of will”, and that her interpretation of the reversals between ‘Vita Contemplativa’ and ‘Vita Activa’ on the one hand, and within the ‘Vita Activa’ between action, the homo faber and the animal laborans, on the other hand, rely on the (almost) same metaphysical ground as Heidegger pessimistic view, that the Question of Being has been lost and replaced by the worldly domination of technology. For Arendt, the sense of loss comes from the demise of action and politics per se, seen from the Greek perspective of early philosophers. She sees the turning point being the Modern Age and the invention of the telescope, followed by the rise of scientific thought everywhere (statistics, calculation, processes…)

   To wrap up, I have defined my subject of research being “Vita Activa and Technology”, and what I am looking for is of course to come to terms with in-depth understanding of the “modern age” of Science, starting from Galileo and Descartes, until Marx, through Arendt’s concepts. As a thinker profoundly influenced by German phenomenology and the work of Heidegger in particular, I will obviously need to clarify the influences coming from such texts at the Crisis of European Sciences (Husserl) and the Question of Technology (Heidegger) to shaping Arendt’s framework. A philosopher I am also very much interested is Leibniz (Professor Berkowitz has shown the relation between Leibniz’s concept of Law and Justice and its applications as calculated outcomes of rules and ‘standards’[1] – algorithmic governance is a topic drawing much attention nowadays). I would like maybe to dedicate some part of my research on Arendt reading Leibniz, or Arendt reading Marx[2], in her own conceptualization of the Vita Activa, and the critique of the age of science and technology. I don’t believe Arendt was pessimistic on science although it seems she has a bias against it; neither she was optimistic; she tried to think science and technology and their impacts. But as I said in the beginning, I am not sure she succeeded producing an original or innovative model where modern age would fit both with the outcomes of totalitarianism, and with the world of liberal democracies or economies, as we know them. The problem is that I cannot formulate what she possibly missed, because it is no more than an intuition at the moment.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of Leibniz death

   To switch to more practical queries, and assuming the subject is relevant and makes sense, my most urgent need is to find out whether or not Arendt wrote down something not published yet in relation to science and technology, or the philosophers of the modern age. It is well-known she worked a lot on Marx, and the New School has published some material in 2002 and 2007, as well as Jerome Kohn did in Promises of Politics (2005), but there are maybe additional sources that can be exploited. I browsed from the Internet the list of topics archived at the Library of Congress, but at this point I’m stuck because I don’t know what could be uncovered doing the research onsite, at the New School or at the Library of Congress itself, versus working from the Internet exclusively. I am just throwing hereafter some items identified from the Catalog, but again, I have no experience working with Arendt’s archives. I contacted also Professor Jerome Kohn about this query and he advised me to go directly to the Library of Congress at Washington D.C. to search through Arendt’s papers.

Subject File 1949-1975

Box 55
University of Columbia
  Conference on Private Rights and the Public Good
  Conference on Technology and the Ideal of Human Progress

Box 57
  Cornell University
            Machiavelli to Marx, 1965

Box 58
  University of California
    History of Political Theory, lectures 1955

Box 59
University of Chicago, Ill
  Marx, Karl, seminar, 1966

Box 72
  Cybernetics, lecture 1964

Box 74
  The impact of Marx, lecture notes, Rand School, 1952

Box 75
  Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought, Christian Gauss Seminar, Princeton, 1953 (this has been published in Social Research Journal 2002)

Box 82
  Marx and Hegel (2 folders)

[1] Roger Berkowitz, The Gift of Science. Leibniz and the modern legal tradition, Fordham University Press, New York, 2010
[2] This is where I stand today (note 24th Jan. 2016)


  1. Guess we'll be seeing you again in North America... Speaking as a historian, there is no substitute for going through archives. It's the best way to discover the unexpected---though it's always possible you won't find anything new.


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